From Larantuka we sailed twelve hours to spend five days on the Solor island of Lembata, in a tiny village of 300 called Lamalera. By American standards much of Indonesia seems a pretty basic place, but even by the loose standards of development we had grown to appreciate, Lamalera felt like a complete and precious throwback, utterly devoid of electric power, running water, telephones, and the modern definition of time. The weekly market there operates on a barter-only basis, and after dark (for those few who choose to remain awake in this place so governed by the appearance of the sun) the available light comes not from bulbs and tubes, but candles and lanterns, the incendiary products of animal fat and whale oil. No type of modern urban noise has been able to challenge the roar of Lamalera's only superpower, the sea, which beats furiously against the beach without pause, and which supplies the villagers with their every meal.
The town's major resource and raison d'Ítre is whales, sustainably hunted and deeply respected by this subsistence culture which has lived off the great mammals' bounty for hundreds of years. They go out at dawn, teams of men whose musculature stands through their tan skin as a testament to the rigors of their lives, pushing boats made of bamboo and wood from the thatch shelters on the beach into the sea, where sails woven from palm fronds are unfurled to go in search of animals twice the size of the boats themselves. We joined them one morning, and although we weren't lucky enough to catch -- or even catch sight of -- a whale, it felt incredible to be out there, on the sea, under the sun, in a boat of such ancient purpose and design. And though whales are the big haul, there are other, lesser quarries for the fishermen to pursue as well. To watch them eviscerating mantas on the beach, the huge rays' skin providing the only sight blacker than the glistening volcanic sand, is an amazing ritual to behold, as each organ and muscle is expertly separated from the corpse by the adults, and collected by the children who drag them home where they will be eaten, dried or harvested for oil. The air in the village smelled terrible when we first arrived, as the town's paths and alleys were largely lined with hanging oceanic meat, left to dry on primitive wooden scaffolds over gutters placed to catch and collect the dripping oils. But after a few days, the odor became commonplace, part of the scene, so indicative was it of the style of life there. An intense little town.
This description may lend the impression that Lamalera is an exciting place to be, full as it is of the actions and ways that "complicated" people like to think of as "simple"; but it isn't, at least not how I used to think of excitement. There the excitement is of a deeper variety, it is the excitement of genuine life at its base, of the life of people close to their origins, close to the land from which we all came. For nothing in Lamalera comes with haste or ease, and the monotony of its rhythms can be a difficult taste to acquire.
Our five days there stretched from meal to meal, from sunup to sundown in a blur of curious lethargy. Like the metronome set on its slowest tempo, we passed the time between tocs in action, but in an action which takes patience to even recognize. Our perceptions, our motivations, our drives all grew into sync with the town's own, making it impossible for me now to distinguish between the days, permitting remembrance of only isolated facts and episodes littered somewhere in the past, set apart from other incidents not by considerations of time, but solely by identity and causation.
One of the people we met in Lamalera was an aged villager named Sebastian. He had been on the famous whaling boat that was dragged all the way to Timor by its reluctant prey, and he eagerly told us the story of his three days adrift and his eventual rescue and return. It was a landmark event in Lamaleran history as well as his only time ever out of the village in his long life. I asked him when it had happened. "Some years ago," he told me.
That's exactly what the town was about: about filtering the stimulus of the complete to arrive at the core of the necessary. Did he need to know in what year his adventure took place? Every day we'd eat a meal of rice and white vegetables. Every night we ate a meal of rice and rehydrated manta. It tasted good at first, interesting, slightly smoky, and meaty... but after days upon days of the same food, all completely devoid of spice, and growing ever more flavorless as our tongues became first used to and then sick of the same material, we began to thirstily crave more complicated food, torturing ourselves and each other with descriptions of dinners in our past, and spices in our future. But in the end, the tasteless food we were repeatedly served did suffice to keep us alive. And in a place like this, where we had come to get away from the sensory overloads of the cities, what right had we to want anything more? And what need? After the town had gone to sleep, we sat up with candles, reading to one another, talking, laughing, until we too drifted away on the sounds of the crashing waves. We led a very organic life there.
Of course, just because all their food is without spice of any kind, that does not mean the people are as bland. Far from it. They were as vivacious and humored as any village we'd met. On Saturday night we stumbled upon a party of sorts, with music, dancing, and the host flitting about with a pitcher and a glass, distributing coconut wine, one glass at a time, to his guests. When everyone had had a drink, he made the rounds again, armed this time with tobacco and corn husks for rolling. And then he'd start again with the coconut wine, filling his glass over and over, offering it to each guest in turn to drink (never mind the floating ants), and ensuring that everyone had as much to drink as they could handle. It was a fun party, full of spirit and the warmth of a close community.
We were three there, Rick, a scottish girl calledSarah, and myself, and we had established ourselves in a very comfortable white house at the end of the beach. We rented the place for five days, until the next boat arrived to take us back, at a total cost of $10 each. Our meals were prepared by the mother of the family who owned the house, and who lived in their own adjacent cottage. Each night, after Rick had gone to bed, Sarah and I went on walks through the dormant town, along the beach, up to the cemetary, always in sight of the waxing moon and earshot of the pounding surf. It was a very peaceful time. We stayed up late every night, and slept in in the mornings.
On Sunday we awoke to a surprise. Rick had risen early and walked to market, a field an hour away, where several villages congregate weekly to trade wares. There he had acquired a live chicken, which he brandished proudly when we stumbled out into the day. "Tonight," we thought joyfully, "we won't be eating manta." I talked to Ibu, who said she'd be happy to cook it for us, and the remainder of the afternoon was spent in preparation, mashing peanuts to make sauce, playing with the chicken (an animal I've never had the pleasure of owning before), and fantasizing about the meal to come. We watched avidly as the daughter of the family beheaded and plucked our pet. We sniffed the air greedily while Ibu slowly cooked it on a bed of charcoal. And we waited patiently in the knowledge that soon we'd dine like kings.
So you can imagine our disappointment when, rather than the sumptuous and tender-fleshed fowl we'd come to expect, we were presented with our dinner, a suculent-smelling and deliciously-sauced bird whose muscles were like rocks, whose meat was so hard that not only couldn't I bite into it, I could barely cut it with a knife. We three sat in shock as we tried to ignore our food's inedibility, not wanting to admit that anything could possibly be wrong. But in the end, there was no fighting it,and we decided that we simply weren't meant to eat well in Lamalera. It was a bad chicken, and now we had not even manta to tide us over until the next day, so we made due with rice, water and crispy chickenskin, and did the only thing we could to combat our hunger and defeat: we laughed. It just goes to show you, I guess: don't eat your pets. It doesn't work.
In the end, we were ready to leave Lamalera, but not without having been affected by it. Its basic style of survival and the degree to which the hardships and silences of remote living had become so accepted and understood taught us a lot about what is unnecessary, and about what of that unnecessary luxury is so very necessary from a different point of view. I liked Lamalera, but ultimately, I was glad to get back to the world of convenience, a world which better enables the tastes of a citizen of the modern world, and which provides the variety which is the spiciest of the spices of life.
The Leaves who Left
The wind flung leaves into the sky with might gusting blowing.
And most of them fell back to earth, but one leaf kept on going.
When he was young and green he knew his trunk, his branch, his brothers,
And when they fell he thought that place must be like all the others.
But after he had soared aloft with wind and clouds and birds,
He recognized the world's huge scope, too big even for words.
He wanted to see more, and since this leaf was pretty smart,
He studied all the birds and learned their soaring gliding art.
But not without a price: the wind made his dry fringe break off,
"But I don't care!" he sang with joy, "for now I live aloft!"
He floated on and on, surveying land and lake and sea,
And when the wind would claim a shard, he'd croon, "But I am free!
And each time that the wind breaks off a little scrap of mine,
That little scrap will see yet more! They're my kids, and that's fine!
Plus, they'll have offspring too! My lineage is thus assured:
For generations hence we shall be earthbound leaves no more!"
Therefore it came to pass that as he wandered on and on,
He fractured more and more, until at last the leaf was gone.
And all the tiny bits to which the leaf had given birth
Have since crumbled to dust, but still have not returned to earth.
The leaf's proud legacy, for which he knew that he must die,
Is drifting on forevermore, throughout, one with the sky.
He could have simply fallen, there to fertilize his tree,
Instead he wafted up and on to see what he could see.
This was the leaf's great dream, which led him to self-sacrifice.
So now I ask you, gentle reader: was it worth its price?
After five days in Lamalera, returning to Larantuka felt like a trip to New York. It had cars, it had electricity, it had places to eat which had menus. Unbelievable. Sarah had gotten off the boat at yet another island village, leaving Rick and I to enjoy the throbbing metropolis that Larantuka seemed to be on our own.
In fact, overzealous in our revelry at the opportunity of choice, I ate far too much, too spicy and too fast once we hit the town. I had only one bowl of soto ayam, a chilied chicken rice soup, but after so many meals of nothing but manta, the spice rendered me sick, weak, and unable to function for the remainder of the night. My stomach just couldn't handle it, so I lay still in my bed, unable to ignore the sound of the blood furiously pumping around my gastrointestinal regions.
And,while thus confined to quarters, Rick went out and found a cargo boat willing to take us to Kupang the following day. Good news.
That ride went pretty smoothly. Knowing that it led to my final Indonesian city made me savor its roughness, helped me to appreciate its annoyances. For dinner on deck we had a boiled egg and boiled rice. Food my stomach could manage, which was followed by a poor night's sleep on the hard planks under a cold wind. And at 10 am, four hours later than we'd been told, we finally arrived at Kupang, Timor. But two hours before we docked, as the land was just energing into view across the sun-speckled sheet of the Savu Sea, one of the crew approached me and casually asked, "where are you going?" This is the most common question in Indonesia, used as sort of an all-purpose greeting even in the most ridiculous of situations, and by this point in my journey I was losing all patience for it. He smiled and nodded when I pointed wordlessly to the landmass on the horizon, still an irregular shadow at the distant edge of the water. "Ah, Timor," he said. "Some thing about this country I won't miss," I thought to myself.
The following day Rick left for Australia, leaving me to commune with my final days in Indonesia. And that's what I did. I walked through the bustle of markets in the evening and through the calm of quiet streets in the afternoon sun. I watched the city, huge by the standards of Flores and Lembata, thriving with life. It was an interesting town, so close to Australia, with all the modern conveniences: telephones, a bakery, and the wildest bemos I've ever seen.
I know I've talked about bemos before, the overcrowded minivans that swarm Indo cities and which for a pittance and some discomfort might get you where you need to go, or where the driver wants you to go, or both, or neither, but which always get you somewhere anyway. In Kalimantan they're called opelets, in Malang they're Mikrolets, but in most places they're just plain bemos, and Kupang me than anyplace I've yet been takes the concept of of the bemo to its furthest extreme.
There are many devices which in many cities the bemo drivers employ to distinguish their vehicle from the thousands of others. Often they have horns which play songs, or flashing lights outside, or colorful pain and stickers throughout, and all of them throb, since the seats in back are typically benches set atop huge bass speakers through which blares the worst pop music known to man. But in Kupang, all these very valuable technologies come to a head, resulting in what can only be termed "headache boxes". They all have everything: flashing bulbs inside and out, mars lights that never cease to strobe, dayglo horrors streaked over every inch of paintable surface, drivers whose g-force-style coefficient of acceleration is only surpassed by their heart-stopping braking power, and the loudest horns and stereos in all of Indonesia, and, as for as I'm concerned, the world. Add to all this the quantities of people they are somehow able to pack into these things, these moving discos, and the percentage of those who smoke, and if you don't have a headache going into the experience, you're sure to have one coming out. Tremendous sensory overload from all sides.
So I rode the bemos in Kupang, watching the outskirts of the city whiz by, and absorbing as much of Indo as I could before leaving. I wrote some letters. And I bought my ticket to Darwin, Australia. That in itself was a weird thing. I'm not usually a nostalgic person, and I wasn't overly so in this case, but it did make me think about what I was leaving behind.
The night before my departure, I sat in a restaurant and considered my Indo experience as a whole. Six months is 2% of my life so far. In that time, I've eaten mammals, amphibians, fish, birds, one wholly disgusting piece of homecooked maggot, and more ants than I dare consider; I've ridden in, atop, hanging onto and hanging out of busses; I've been one of 26 people in a single car; I've shared transport with people, dogs, pigs, goats and chickens; I rode from one town to another between the cab and the trailer of a gaoline tanker truck; I've sailed on passenger liners, fishing trawlers, canoes, klotoks, dugouts, cargoships and whaling boats; I've used horsecarts, pedal trishaws and motorcycles; and I walked and walked and walked. I learned a language, made a lot of friends, and had several relationships of varying degrees with a number of women from an atlas of countries, each girl more beautiful than all the others.
I felt satisfied and ready to leave what I was sure I'd miss: Indo's modern 3rd world flavors and sights, its bizarre repetition of meaningless questions and its confusing organization. As if to echo my thoughts, a young man cameup to my table as I sat motionless in contemplation. "Where are you going?" he asked.
I didn't even flinch at his ludicrous question. "Australia," I told him.